Women’s Republic recently reported on China’s one-child policy, which started in 1979 and lasted until early 2016. As a Chinese adoptee whose abandonment was likely influenced by these government actions, I appreciated the opportunity to learn more about the context surrounding this regulation. 

After reading it, I wanted to hear from other women who, like me, were abandoned in China during this period and adopted into American families. After reaching out to friends and posting on Asian adoptee Facebook groups, I found three women willing to share their reflections on growing up as Chinese-American adoptees.

A recap

Five years ago, China announced the end of its one-child policy, which made it illegal for any family in China to have multiple children, with few exceptions. The policy was imposed to curb the skyrocketing Chinese population, nearing one-billion by the late 1970s

Under this policy, an estimated 50 million Chinese girls were abandoned, put up for adoption, hidden from the public, or in some cases, killed. 

The reasons for this are complicated. While it is true that in Chinese culture, boys are valued for carrying the family name, it is too simplistic to say that families abandoned and murdered their daughters simply because boys were preferable. 

In China, males are typically the caretakers for aging parents. In a country where federal welfare for the elderly is lacking, many families, especially those in rural areas, felt giving up a girl for a boy was their best chance of survival. Others had little choice in the matter since the Chinese government heavily fined and even forced abortions and sterilizations on women who bore multiple babies. 

According to the US Department of State, between 1999 and 2015, 76,026 children were adopted from China by Americans. Every year from 1999 to 2006, over 90% of Chinese children adopted into the US were female.

Encountering racism 

According to the US Department of Human Health and Services, 92% of US parents who adopt abroad identify as white. Therefore, many Chinese adoptees are raised in biracial or multiracial families. They must navigate the challenges of looking different from adoptive parents and siblings, and they often encounter racism because of it.

Grace Gerloff (23) is a Chinese adoptee and anthropology doctoral student at Michigan State University. She grew up in Minneapolis, MN. Gerloff says she and her sister, who is also a Chinese adoptee, experience racism when in public with their white parents. She says when she travels internationally with her adoptive mom, airport staff sometimes drop her mom’s bags in her arms, assuming she is her assistant. When she walks outside with her adoptive father, Gerloff says she is often mistaken for his wife rather than his daughter.

Gerloff admits it can be difficult to talk about racism with parents who never experienced it firsthand. Yet, she emphasizes its importance.

“Growing up, we didn’t really talk about race or racism,” Gerloff states. “I remember once as a little kid getting called a ‘chink’ by somebody and then having to go home and ask my mom what that meant. And I remember her getting really upset . . . I think that was kind of a realization that transracial adoption is not an uncomplicated process, but you bring a child of color into a racist country, and they’re going to experience racism.”

Chinese adoptees who live in areas with few Asians have the added challenge of being a racial minority. Lily Hannaher, a 23-year-old writer from Fargo, ND, says she felt out of place growing up as a Chinese adoptee in a majority-white city.

“I feel like I was always different from them,” Hannaher says of her classmates and neighbors. 

According to US Census data, Fargo’s population is roughly 85% white and less than 4% Asian

As a minority, Hannaher says she was a target of racism. She recalls an elementary school music class in which other students made fun of the Chinese music her teacher played for World Culture Day in front of her. While multiculturalism was celebrated in school, Hannaher says racism went unaddressed.

Andrea Louie is an anthropology professor at Michigan State University and author of the book, How Chinese Are You?. She has extensively researched Chinese transnational adoption. Louie states that being raised to have pride in Chinese culture is not the only important aspect of identity-formation for Chinese adoptees because it does not combat the discrimination they face. “[It] is a really misguided idea in the sense that you can be super proud, but that doesn’t protect you [from racism],” she says.

Authentically Chinese?

Another challenge for Chinese adoptees is negotiating the expectations that others have regarding what it means to be Chinese with their own knowledge of Chinese culture. Andrea Louie asserts that there is no such thing as “authentic Chinese culture.” Every ethnic culture is practiced differently by those who are a part of it. Furthermore, culture changes over time and depending on the context.

Yet, Louie asserts that there is a fine line between negotiating Chinese culture and appropriating it in ways that fail to acknowledge the history of discrimination towards Chinese people in the US. She says this is often a challenge for white parents attempting to raise their adopted children with an understanding of Chinese culture.

“. . . Being a Chinese-American family is not about reaching back for this ‘authentic Chinese culture,’” she says. “. . . But at the same time, there are limits to how you can play with culture. You can’t just make up anything out of context.”

Grace Gerloff says her parents were a “textbook case” of adoptive parents presenting Chinese culture to her from a white, western perspective. She remembers watching the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, eating Chinese takeout, and being taught how to use chopsticks by her white dad. She says, “. . . all of the messages about China that I got were very much like these western interpretations of what being Chinese is. We never really talked about being Chinese-American or Asian-American, which I think probably would have been more helpful for me . . .”

Gerloff says she does not blame her parents for exposing her to Chinese culture the way they did, emphasizing they had limited knowledge and resources about raising a transnational adoptee. 

“My parents did the very best that they knew how at the time,” she says. “But growing up in the 90s and early 2000s in Minnesota, we just didn’t have a ton of public discourse about race, ethnicity, so all they really knew was . . . culture in a very curated context . . .”

For some Chinese adoptees, experiencing racism deterred them from exploring their Chinese identity at all. This was the case for Lindsey Slater (24), an interior designer from Florida. Slater says her mom sent her and her twin sister to a Chinese culture camp after a kid in their fourth-grade class harassed them for being Chinese. Slater says her mom also wanted them to learn Mandarin, but because her peers made her feel ashamed of her ethnicity, she refused. Now, she feels conflicted about her decision. “I wish she had made us go to Chinese school . . . because I think I would be a lot more connected to being Chinese if I did speak the language,” Slater says. “[However], I think she made the right choice . . . because we were struggling a lot with being Chinese and being bullied at that time.” 

Reconnecting with culture

One’s identity as a Chinese adoptee need not be separated from other identities – as Asian Americans, daughters, Jews, Catholics, cellists, and soccer players. Andrea Louie describes identity exploration as an integrative process. She says the teenage Chinese adoptees she researched for her book were, like all of us, exploring themselves as individuals who wanted to be seen beyond their physical features and the expectations of others.

“They were basically trying to find a place to express themselves as whole individuals, and that would include having been adopted, but it would also include . . . taste in music [for example].”

Through her research and personal experience, Louie has seen examples of Chinese Americans expressing their multifaceted identities. She cites one adoptee who included Chinese characters on her bat mitzvah invitations and described her own childhood Thanksgiving dinners with her aunt, who cooked turkey alongside congee and dumplings.

Linsey Slater, likewise, reinterprets traditions during cultural celebrations with her diverse family. She says her family celebrates Chinese New Year, incorporating Chinese traditions like cleaning the house before the first day of the New Year. However, for her multiracial, multiethnic family, which consists of Chinese, Black, Caucasian, Puerto Rican, and Columbian members, the most memorable part of the celebration is gathering together around good food and a movie.

Writing is the medium through which Lily Hannaher explores her identity. She claims her fictional characters are inspired by her experiences as an adopted individual as well as those of other adoptees she knows. Hannaher says she began writing adoptee characters because there are so few in literature, and she couldn’t fully relate to the white or Asian characters she read about.

“I had never envisioned any of my characters as adoptees . . . I’d never read that before. And then I was like, well, I could be that person,” Lily states.

Grace Gerloff says she navigates her identity through activism and her research as an anthropologist. She says she began considering what it meant to be Chinese American through Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests she got involved with in high school. “I first got really interested in what it meant to be Chinese American after the first big wave of BLM started emerging with the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown,” she says. “I got really curious about how my identity fits into this.” She said this was also the first time she began to think of her identity as a person of color.

Gerloff is currently investigating how transracial adoptees negotiate racial identity within the context of social justice movements.

“It’s been really interesting using academia as a way to interrogate my own identity and my own experiences,” she says.

Final thoughts

Despite having the shared experience of being born and adopted under China’s one-child policy, Chinese adoptees are not a homogenous group. There is no one way to be Chinese, and Chinese culture encompasses different things to different people. Therefore, as Chinese adoptees navigate their identities, they may choose to explore Chinese food, celebrations, pop culture, or create new traditions altogether. Some Chinese adoptees may not feel strongly about being Chinese at all, which is also valid and may change over time.

We should celebrate these Chinese adoptees as women who break racial stereotypes and push the boundaries of what it means to be Chinese-American.

Read also:
What Will People Say: A Personalized Review
How Fighting Racism Benefits Everyone
When Chinatown Marched Against Police Brutality